At Austin Congress, New Urbanists Rally Around Responses to Climate Change, Housing Market Volatility

Challenges Energize Top Gathering of Urbanists

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The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) wrapped up one of its best attended annual Congresses ever last week in Austin, where work on solutions to climate change, household gasoline dependency, and troubled real estate markets kept nearly 1500 attendees engaged for three and a half days (and evenings). By the time the event concluded, the part played by walkable, mixed-use urban development in reducing carbon emissions and in providing long-term value amid volatile real estate markets had come into clearer focus, as did plans for CNU to coordinate and advance these solutions.

While CNU continues to drive innovation in areas such as regional planning and transportation design, including the replacement of in-city freeways with development-friendly city streets and valuable city fabric, the following topics proved particularly newsworthy:

New Urbanism’s Development Advantages: A series of sessions on New Urbanism in relation to the troubled U.S. housing economy showed some current market problems are unavoidable – like mortgages failing to close as potential buyers wait to sell existing homes. But even moreso, these sessions revealed how New Urbanism is its own distinct market with profound advantages over the hard-hit single-family home sector.

A plenary-session panel composed of prominent developers was filled with newsworthy observations. Greg Weaver, Senior Vice President of the national developer Catellus, for example, reported that one of his firm’s projects -- a mixed-use infill new urbanist project in San Francisco – “has the most home sales of any development” in the San Francisco Bay area. “We haven’t surveyed the buyers to say exactly why, but I’d like to say it’s because it’s a new urbanist project. It is designed well. It has quality. It has a good feel to it. If we keep it up, we’re going to end up doing better than our competitors that are in greenfields or just aren’t designed as well,” said Weaver whose firm’s other projects include the 711-acre redevelopment of the former Mueller airport in Austin. “In today’s environment, we’re seeing a flight to quality.I’m a believer that new urbanist projects are better projects, whether they’re designed better, or they feel better.”

The other panelists – Steve Maun, President of Leyland Alliance and William Gietema, CEO of Arcadia Realty – joined Weaver in citing the diversity of uses and potential flexibility of new urbanist plans as key assets for navigating difficult markets and ongoing demographic shifts. “Whether it’s millenials or baby boomers, they are both migrating inward into city centers and places that have activity, entertainment, and good transportation. If you think of the market demographic as being a train running down a track, what you really want to do as a developer is jump in front of it with your project -- make sure your project is placed in front of where the migration is already going,” said Maun. “So I think New Urbanism is particularly well set at least in the long run to be able to attract the market segment if it’s in a spot with existing infrastructure.” View the full video of this session and read more about the demographic trends reshaping development.

Mixed-income Housing:In another notable appearance, Henry Cisneros, the CEO of CityView and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, argued for the continuing influence of HUD’s historic cooperation with new urbanists on the Hope VI program, which revamped the nation’s most deteriorated and isolated public housing into well-connected, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. View the full video of that address and a report in the UK-based Guardian generated at the Congress, in which Cisneros talks about the prospects for reviving Hope VI should Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain get elected.

Climate Change and Sustainability: More than any other topic, threats to the earth’s environment turned out to be a major rallying point at CNU XVI, as the Austin Congress became the place for a number of sustainability strands within the CNU to come together.
• Doug Farr, a CNU board member and green architect committed to urbanism, got an enthusiastic reception from a closing plenary audience for his call for a campaign to reduce U.S. vehicle miles traveled by half or more by 2030 through coordinated changes in development patterns and transportation systems.
• Sustainable design innovators Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides (both CNU co-founders) and Hank Dittmar (chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and CNU’s outgoing board chair) offered the Canons of Sustainable Architecture as a lesser companion to CNU’s Charter and “a continuously improving set of general 
rules for operationalizing green design.”
• Galina Tahchieva and John Massengale promoted amending the Charter, in part to clarify its relationship to global sustainability.
• Smart Growth America President/CEO and longtime CNU member Geoff Anderson delivered a plenary address calling for a full-scale campaign to influence transportation and development policy.
• Groups of CNU members led efforts to advance the start of the art in fields such as light imprint urbanism.

Assuming the position of board chair at the Congress — after five years of distinguished service by Dittmar that saw CNU’s membership expand, chapters multiply, and influence on development patterns grow — Ray Gindroz, the pioneering urbanist long-associated with both Urban Design Associates and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, presented to the Congress a framework for incorporating these efforts and others into an effective CNU climate change initiative. The framework draws direct parallels between CNU’s response to Mr. Cisneros’ appeal in the 1990s for a partnership to transform blighted public housing into renewed neighborhoods and the current need for a response to climate change. In both cases, key solutions are inextricably linked to the design of neighborhoods. As reports such as ULI’s Growing Cooler have shown, only a shift to the kind of mixed-use urbanism promoted by new urbanists can help avoid projected increases in driving and the resulting increases in greenhouse gases that would come even with more fuel efficient vehicles.

The framework advanced by Gindroz, created in consultation with CNU’s board and CEO John Norquist, picks up the idea of committing CNU to working towards an ambitious goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions through less driving — not be rationing driving in any way, but by developing in walkable, mixed-use, transit-connected urban and suburban neighborhoods that give people a range of convenient options for getting around. “It is essential to create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, towns, and cities at urban densities to replace current patterns of sprawl,” reports Gindroz. “To succeed these must be attractive, congenial places which people love and care for.” Research shows that development of this type leads to reduced driving -- the more urban the neighborhood the sharper the reduction.

The document also foresees a vital role for CNU in creating and calibrating development models that will help mayors, governors, and other leaders meet challenges they’ve made to reduce carbon emissions in their communities and states. CNU created similar development models and design guidelines for the Hope VI program. The plan calls for work in the coming months to better define goals and solutions, with a full report on progress by the next Congress, CNU XVII, Experiencing the New Urbanism: the Convenient Remedy, which will be held in Denver in June 2009.

Read the framework presented by Gindroz, see CNU’s expanding library of audio and video from CNU XVI (including Robert Caro's electrifying plenary address) and read the Congress blog with reports from the Congress.

Photo: Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros with CNU members who partnered with him to create the Hope VI program to transform blighted public housing in the United States. Photo courtesy of Garland B. Hilton III.